Report to the Stakeholders for 2015
by Phil Reed
Steve Jackson Games has one stockholder: Steve. But many people have a stake in our success. Our STAKEholders are our employees, our distributors and retailers, and, of course, the people who play our games . . . as well as the freelance artists and designers who create the finished product, the volunteers who demonstrate our games at conventions and retail stores, and the folks who run game conventions.
We are, I assume the reader knows, a publisher of games. We have been in business since 1980. At the end of 2015, we had 43 full-time staff and contractors, plus a few part-timers. Most of our line consists of card games, boardgames, dice games, and RPGs. We sell through hobby distribution, the mass market, and direct sales – both physical products and digital downloads.
2015: Executive Summary
It was another fabulous year. Gross income was $6.6 million, down $1.9 million from 2014. This decline in sales was expected and managed thanks to the hard work of Ross Jepson, our Director of Sales (who saw the decline coming a few years ago, while many of us were just enjoying our growth), and Gail Barton, our Controller (who is even more conservative with Steve's money than Steve is).
What made 2015, despite a drop in revenue, a great year for Steve Jackson Games? Several things, including:
- Increasing sales of the foreign editions of our games, managed perfectly by Leonard Balsera, who communicates daily with our translation partners.
- Our Munchkin licensees – Alderac Entertainment, Atlas Games, Boom Studios, Fireside Games, and USAopoly – continue to bring Munchkin to new shelves and a larger audience.
- We made incredible progress on our plans for the 15th anniversary of Munchkin. Many of the Guest Artist Edition games are already at print, and distributor and retailer feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
- Two major launches for 2016 – a new edition of Car Wars, spearheaded by Scott Haring, and a completely new game we've not announced yet – were significant distractions during 2015, but the resources invested in those two games last year will pay off big this year.
Expected Decline in Revenue?
A decline in revenue is never a great thing, but when it's expected and properly managed, it's not catastrophic or even threatening. We knew 2015 was going to be a down year because:
- Our mass sales channel opportunities were weaker than in previous years. When you sell into a new chain, there's a significant spike at the start of the process – a chain taking in a minimum of one case per store for 1,500 stores is a nice sales bump all at once! After that initial "product set," sales become a flow that maintains stock supplies. We didn't enter any new (to us) chains in 2015, meaning that we didn't have the initial sales spikes that we enjoyed in recent years.
- Working with Target, we elected to remove the original Munchkin game from their shelves in favor of a new title, Munchkin Oz. This decreased overall sales of the original Munchkin in 2015, but we benefitted from an increase in promotional support meaning that, in the end, we maintained Munchkin's level of awareness with Target shoppers. This helps drive new players to Munchkin and, in the long run, directs some of those new players to the hobby game stores. We'll do something new in 2016 with a few different mass sales partners to keep Munchkin on everyone's minds. More news later this year!
- Our number of new releases in 2015 was down roughly 37% over 2014. This was a combination of our failure to finish a couple of projects (not planned for) with our dedicated focus on 2016 releases (definitely planned for). We've got big things coming this year, and the short-term loss in sales last year was well worth it for the long-term gain of the new games planned for 2016.
2015: The High Points
We released over a dozen new Munchkin expansions, accessories, and games through hobby distribution, including Munchkin Steampunk Deluxe and our first big Star Munchkin expansion in a decade: Star Munchkin 3 – Diplomatic Impunity. Other wins for Munchkin during the year included:
- Munchkin World NYC, a pop-up store in Manhattan, was open in February and gave Munchkin fans a chance to meet Steve, Andrew, and John, as well as an opportunity to try some completely new Munchkin titles. Despite the freezing cold (brrrrrr!!!!!) everyone had a blast. This was a fabulous way to start the year.
- We transitioned the popular Munchkin booster series from fin-seal packages to retail-friendlier blister packs. This change was made after repeated discussions with hobby retailers, and we immediately saw a spike in booster sales after the packaging switch. The new packaging also allowed us to reprint some older boosters (Munchkin Dragons, Munchkin Marked for Death, Star Munchkin Space Ships) that we could not have brought back economically in the fin-seal packs. We also published several new boosters and expanded the booster format to larger, 30-card expansions (Munchkin Hipsters and Munchkin Kittens) – we'll be doing more of those!
- We expanded our Munchkin creative pool, with designer Devin Lewis and artist Katie Cook contributing some adorably wrong new titles to the catalog. You can expect more from both of them in 2016.
Car Wars: The Card Game joined Car Wars Classic on store shelves, and in April of 2015, we gauged interest in classic-style Car Wars support with the Car Wars Arenas project on Kickstarter. This was successful in two ways:
- The project met its funding goal and we shipped the finished product on schedule; Car Wars Arenas is available right now at your favorite local game store.
- We collected enough information about the level of demand for classic-style Car Wars expansions to determine our next course of action for the game.
Additionally, Scott continued in-house and limited out-of-house playtests of the next edition of Car Wars. Personally, I'm enjoying the new game system and am looking forward to seeing just how far we can take it over the next couple of years.
Other Great Things
- The first issue of Boom's Munchkin comic book sold out on pre-orders. Hurray! We're very pleased to see this series continuing into 2016; if you haven't been picking it up, you're missing some fun stories.
- Steve, Monica, and Andrew went on the JoCo Cruise – which Steve Jackson Games is proud to support as one of the sponsors – and had so much fun that they're joining the festivities again this year.
- We threw a penthouse party for retailers at the GAMA Trade Show in Las Vegas, which gave us a chance to chat, play games, and enjoy the company of over 100 hobby-game retailers. We will do this again!
- We signed deals to create games based on Simon's Cat and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Watch for both games later this year!
- Zombie Dice remains a strong seller, coming in at #3 in our Top 40 titles in 2015. The expansions also performed well; expect to see reprints of Zombie Dice 2 and Zombie Dice 3 later this year.
- Chupacabra, originally published by Haywire and added to our catalog in 2013, is also performing well in stores and a reprint is scheduled for July.
Every year our staff grows in skill and experience, and 2015 was no different as we improved at every level. A few highlights:
Randy Scheunemann was promoted to Operations Manager, taking a layer of management off of COO Sam Mitschke's shoulders. This frees more of Sam's time to assist Steve and to oversee creative development.
Susan Bueno, my assistant since late 2014, proved invaluable and has helped organize my time. This has given me more time to look to the future (and we're already seeing the results as the Munchkin Guest Artist Edition series has come together perfectly). Her calm and reasoned approach to everything has settled some of the chaos that circles me and she has made all our lives better.
Rhea Friesen was promoted to Marketing Director and is already bringing her energy and excitement for gaming to the position. Rhea's experience – both at Steve Jackson Games and in her previous jobs – will be valuable this year as she tackles our marketing problems and gives each new game the promotion it deserves.
Amber Cook joined us as U.S. Sales Manager and has become our primary liaison with PSI. I'm still transitioning from day-to-day oversight of our mass market sales, but I've already gained more time each day to devote to other parts of the business.
Ehhhhh . . .
These were places where we wanted a win and didn't quite get one, or where success and failure were mixed.
You know things are a mixed bag when you're told how great a show you put on at a major convention – I'm looking at you, Gen Con – while at the same time stressing over all of the behind-the-scenes mistakes and problems. Our convention presence has gone through its ups and downs over the years, but 2015 was particularly problematic and disorganized. We think 2016 will be better, especially with new help: we hired Guy Himber of Crazy Bricks fame as our Events Director.
This fantastic Munchkin introductory set – created by Andrew Hackard and John Kovalic, with input from many in the office – performed okay, but failure to properly promote this complete Munchkin game at $9.95 drastically reduced sales potential. This title deserved better marketing than it got, so we'll re-introduce it to the market later this year with a much bigger push than last year.
The quality of humor Lenny put into this Chez Geek expansion was so incredible that we have a new expansion, Spring Break, set for release later this year. This is despite the lower-than-expected sales of Slack to the Future; the Munchkin juggernaut overran Chez Geek again, so we're taking steps to give Chez Geek more attention this year. The game deserves more of our time than we've been giving it.
So Very Wet
Our Gen Con trip ended with an unpleasant surprise when the convention closed with a burst water line in our office. One to two inches of water filled nearly the entire office – over 5,000 square feet – over Gen Con weekend, and we returned from the show to a wet mess.
The staff pulled together quickly, with Randy leading the charge to evacuate materials and start the cleanup efforts as Eric located temporary working space for our creative team. During August, September, and October, various parts of the staff worked from home, the dry parts of the office, and the Orange CoWorking space in Austin. (Special thanks to Shelley's team for letting us take over half their space on virtually no notice!) It was a costly nuisance, but everyone pulled together and looked forward – we even managed to send a half-dozen or so titles to print while we dealt with the disruption.
One good thing to come out of this experience was that Eric, Sam, and Randy worked with an architect and contractors to handle some overdue renovations to the office during the repair period. Walls came down, new shelving went up, and the whole building was repainted. When we all returned to the office in early November, it was to a spot with friendlier spaces for us to congregate and work as a team.
- Our Ogre Kickstarter project commitments remain incomplete. We posted scenarios for playtest, saw progress on the music, and even made small progress on the promised expansion, but ultimately, the project lingers, undone and consuming brainspace. Steve has stepped in to personally dislodge the blockage and move the Ogre family of projects forward.
- Routine tasks remain not-so-routine. The smallest parts of creating and marketing games were some of our greatest challenges during the year. Every finished game represents a lot of puzzle pieces, and last year we spent far too many hours uncovering and correcting mistakes that should not have happened. The worst problems in 2015 came from a few key steps in marketing games that were missed – such as properly announcing a new title – leading to unnecessary distractions. We're working on revising checklists and enforcing the use of those checklists, and hope that this problem ended in 2015.
- The Discworld Roleplaying Game and GURPS Mars Attacks are not yet at print. Printed GURPS books are a challenge to produce profitably at this time. Our resources invested in physical books – which take considerably more effort than board and card games because of their size and artist requirements – currently exceed expected sales through hobby distribution. We're working on it.
State of the Industry
- F2Z Entertainment purchased Plaid Hat Games, marking another step in the consolidation across the industry that we've seen over the last couple of years. And Asmodee kept their conquest engine running as they snatched up Spot It and Legend of the Five Rings.
- Batman found unexpected new entries in the hobby game industry with Batman Fluxx and Rory's Story Cubes: Batman. I like Batman, and seeing these pairings made me so very jealous; I wanna work on a Batman game!
- There were over 800,000 Magic: The Gathering events in 2015 alone. Wow.
Shared Goals and Partners
The game business is a network, and the healthier it is, the better for all of us. SJ Games continues to value, and rely on, its hobby-industry partners. These include:
- the hobby-game retailers, who provide gamers with space to play our games;
- PSI, our fulfillment agent for most distributor sales;
- Surge, our licensing agent;
- the many overseas publishers who are translating Munchkin and other games;
- the domestic publishers who are licensing characters or mechanics from our games, especially Munchkin;
- Adventure Retail, which represents us at San Diego Comic Con, Gen Con, and other major conventions;
- the convention organizers who showcase our work, and the dedicated hobbyists who serve as Men in Black to demonstrate our games at retail stores and conventions;
- GPI, which does most of our manufacturing;
- and the publishers, small and large, who distribute their digital products through Warehouse 23.
Priorities: 2015 Report Card
We set five priorities for 2015:
- Give Steve all of the time he needs to work on completely new game ideas and, maybe, finish some older games that have been in need of a serious stretch of "Steve's working on games now" time. If resting and vacation happen around (or, at times, instead of) game design, then that's fantastic! As I stated in the 2014 report, I consider this a failure. Steve spent more time in the office assisting than he should have (we should be handling the bulk of the day-to-day operations ourselves) and not enough time staying at home to work on games. We will get better at this. We are already better at this than we were at the start of the decade.
- Support Munchkin by improving direct communications to everyone involved in the game: fans, retailers, distributors, and Munchkin licensees. A partial failure, in that our marketing missed some routine and vital steps in communicating with everyone, but bringing Alain Dawson on board to handle licensee communications has improved that side of the process. We continue to work toward a player-focused email newsletter.
- Continue supporting Munchkin by releasing at least one new core set and two to three new tuckbox expansions, and bringing some hard-to-find cards back into print in a new package. A partial success. Munchkin Steampunk Deluxe shipped late, Star Munchkin 3 – Diplomatic Impunity shipped late, and Munchkin Christmas Lite shipped late. Munchkin Hidden Treasures went into Calendar.com stores, but we failed to announce it properly (a running theme of 2015). A combination of internal delays, shipping issues, and warehouse receiving problems all worked against us.
- Provide GURPS players with new support in the form of two new hardcovers (one, the Discworld Roleplaying Game, you know of; the other is still a secret) and by reprinting GURPS Characters and GURPS Campaigns early enough that the supply is uninterrupted. PDF support will, of course, continue. A failure of sales and marketing prevented the two new books – the Discworld Roleplaying Game and GURPS Mars Attacks – from going to print. We are working on it. Reprints of GURPS Characters and GURPS Campaigns are now at print. Our GURPS team did an excellent job of keeping PDF releases flowing throughout the year.
- Continue Ogre and Car Wars work as best we can without Steve's full-time involvement in either. This includes publishing one support for Car Wars Classic as development work continues on Car Wars Sixth Edition. Set the stage for CW6e to launch in 2016 . . . the 35th anniversary of the game! Partial success. Enough work was completed on Car Wars that we should see the game in stores for Christmas. Ogre moved so slowly that Steve stepped back in to oversee it directly, which is exactly what we did not want to happen.
Priorities for 2016
Two big events – the 15th anniversary of Munchkin and the 35th anniversary of Car Wars – dominate our 2016 plans, but that doesn't mean we don't have other ambitions.
- Get all 15 of the Munchkin Guest Artist Edition titles completed and shipped to stores. Yes, 15. We have already announced several Guest Artist Edition games, but not all of them! We have big enough hands to create plenty of other goodies that are going to make this a great year.
- Successfully launch Car Wars Sixth Edition. This requires that many things go right – completion of the game's basic sets, a focused and profitable Kickstarter project, shipping the game to distributors before Black Friday (which means the game must go to print before July 2) – but I believe that we have the team to pull this off.
- Continue supporting Munchkin with new expansions (a handful of which are already at print), ship at least one new core game, and improve our communications with distributors, retailers, licensing partners, and Munchkin fans. This includes finally launching a Munchkin email newsletter so that we can communicate directly with the tens of thousands of Munchkin players across the world.
- Improve and document our internal processes so that we lighten Steve's load. Transferring decades of Steve and Monica's experience into a readily accessible format will make everyone's job a little easier. This should also give Steve even more time at home to do as he wishes, whether that's play with trains or games.
- Hammer at the remaining Ogre commitments. This will require hiring a new Ogre line editor, but that cannot happen until we transfer more of Steve's expectations and experiences to a line document that staff can consult before reaching out to Steve for assistance.
Everything else is a non-priority, something to do after the priorities are under control.
Another Great Year
We've got enough of the 2016 releases wrapped up and at print that I'm confident that 2016 will be another great year. Our team has a challenging six to seven months ahead – between the last of the Munchkin Guest Artist Edition games, Car Wars, and our biggest (still secret) project of the year it's gonna be a rough time – but once we blast through those first several months, things will get easy. Nah. Easy would be dull. And we're definitely not ones to grow bored and allow dull to enter our doors. We're already starting to think about 2017, after all!
Keep your eyes on the Daily Illuminator and join us on Facebook, Twitter, and our forums; 2016 is going to be a fantastic year.
– Phil Reed
|Top 40 Products by Dollar Volume
|Car Wars Card Games
|Munchkin Pathfinder Deluxe
|Munchkin Steampunk Deluxe
|Munchkin 5 – De-Ranged
|Munchkin 2 – Unnatural Axe
|Car Wars Arena
|Munchkin Mass Market
|Star Munchkin 3 – Diplomatic Impunity
|Star Munchkin Deluxe
|Munchkin 7 – Cheat With Both Hands
|Munchkin 6 – Demented Dungeons
|Munchkin Treasure Hunt
|Munchkin Zombies Deluxe
|Munchkin 3 – Clerical Errors
|Munchkin 8 – Half Horse, Will Travel
|Mars Attacks: The Dice Game
|Munchkin Legends Deluxe
|Munchkin 4 – The Need for Steed
|Munchkin Holiday Surprise
|Munchkin Steampunk Deluxe Launch Kit
|Munchkin Kobolds Ate My Baby!™
|Car Wars Classic
|Munchkin Game Changers
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